Several embarrassing scenes in the spoof fly-on-the-wall series The Office feature the calamitous manager David Brent trying so hard to appear racially colour blind that he actually ends up causing serious offence. A new study by Evan Apfelbaum and colleagues has identified the age when (White American) children first show this concern to appear unprejudiced, even though doing so leads them to perform less well at a task.
One hundred and one children, predominantly White, half of whom were aged 8 to 9, the other half being aged 9 to 10, participated in a task reminiscent of the board game “Guess Who?” Presented with photos of 40 individuals who varied according to four key dimensions, the children’s task was to find out with as few yes/no questions as possible which one of those individuals’ photos the researcher had in their hand.
Crucially, for half the children, race was one of the key dimensions. Among these children, the younger kids actually outperformed the older ones, and they did so because they were unafraid to ask questions about race. For the other half of the children, coloured stickers replaced race as the fourth identifying dimension, and in this case, as you’d expect, the older children outperformed the younger ones.
“The anomaly in task performance demonstrated in the present study may point to the onset of an important transition in human social development at 10 years of age,” the researchers said, “when internalised social and moral norms begin to regulate behaviour, even when such regulation comes at a cost.”
Evan P. Apfelbaum, Kristin Pauker, Nalini Ambady, Samuel R. Sommers, Michael I. Norton (2008). Learning (not) to talk about race: When older children underperform in social categorization. Developmental Psychology, 44 (5), 1513-1518 DOI: 10.1037/a0012835